Improving your Japanese Pronunciation

Improving your Japanese Pronunciation

Lately, I have had some very long interpreting days. When you talk for too long, you start to slur your words and they become almost incomprehensible. So, I decided to start doing vocal warm-ups before interpreting. I know how to do them in English, but I wasn’t sure how to warm up in Japanese. I found a great activity from a woman who used to be an announcer on TV.

Take a listen and see if you can emulate her fantastic pronunciation.

Here is a link to the text she is practicing:

A Study in Keigo from Hanzawa Naoki

A Study in Keigo from Hanzawa Naoki


*Note: May contain small spoilers for those who haven’t seen the show. No major plot points are revealed.

Many of you have probably watched the show Hanzawa Naoki. It was a huge hit in Japan last fall; just under half of the country was watching the final episode. If you haven’t seen it, well, you should. It is an excellent resource for understanding the nitty-gritty of Japanese business culture. But that is not what I am going to talk about today.

Hanzawa Naoki is an excellent display of how different levels of 敬語 and 丁寧語 work in practice.

①半沢と同期 (Kondo & Tomari)

When Hanzawa is talking to the guys who joined the company at the same time he did (his buddies), he doesn’t use any formal language. He doesn’t put -さん on their names. He calls them by their last names only. He uses informal language with them.

When we learn Japanese, we are taught that everyone who is not a -ちゃん or a -くん is addressed as -さん. However, that is not true. With people on the same level as you or (as we will show later) people lower on the chain than you, it is perfectly acceptable to call them by their last name only. There is a scene where Kondo puts the smack down on his subordinate who had been acting like his boss. Kondo had been addressing him politely by his title and all of a sudden he shouts, “Oi, Noda!” This gets the guys attention. It says, “I have been trying to be polite to you, but don’t you forget that I am still your boss.”


The branch manager, Asano, is Hanzawa’s first rival. Also, the first person he threatens. Technically, Asano is two steps above Hanzawa and therefore Hanzawa speaks in fluent Keigo to him. However, he is only paying lip service. His tone betrays his true feelings.

In a TV show, this is all well and good as it creates added drama. Hanzawa sticks it to the man with every beautiful line of Keigo. But we, as non-native speakers, need to be careful not to do the same. No matter what you may think of Keigo, it all comes down to respect. You must try to show sincere respect to your superiors. I found this quote in the ビジネス能力検定3級 book that I have mentioned in previous posts.

「相手を敬う気持ちを持ってのぞむことが大切で、この気持ちがこもっていれば、多少使い方がおかしくても不快感を与えることは少ないものです。反対に、敬う気持ちのないまま、口先だけで丁寧なことばを使っても、相手にそらぞらしい感じをもたせるだけです。むずかしいのは敬語そのものではなく、この相手への尊敬や感謝の気持ちのもち方なのです。」-2012年版, pg. 64

Even if you can’t master Keigo (and trust me, there are many native speakers who never do), what’s important is that you show respect in the way you speak. But I would encourage you all to try and master Keigo as much as you can because I feel that it is something that many Japanese don’t expect from foreigners. Especially as interpreters, we need to aim to exceed those expectations.

③頭取⇒Everyone else

There is no one in the show higher than the bank president and that being the case, he almost never uses Keigo. He speaks informally to almost everyone under him. Must be nice to be the boss.


The only time we hear the president speaking formally, it is on the phone to Kurosaki, when he finds out his bank is about to be audited. Within the company, only the company organization chart matters. But even the highest person in a company must be ready to kowtow to an outsider who holds their company’s future in their hands. This goes for customers too. Even if the customer is lower on his company’s food chain than the president of the bank, the president will almost always address him formally and may even use Keigo to him.

When deciding whether or not to use Keigo, think of the following things:

1) Have I met this person before?

    – First impressions are important and almost always require more formal language.

2) Is the person part of my group (company, school, etc) or an outsider?

    – An outsider (customer, employee of another company, student from another class) will always be addressed formally.

3) Is the person higher on the food chain than me?

    – This one probably goes without saying. Respect your higher ups.

The Importance of Background Knowledge

The Importance of Background Knowledge

Background knowledgeI recently had the opportunity to interpret for a machine specialist from Japan. He was visiting the U.S., trying to help different customers who had purchased his company’s machines get them set up correctly. After he ran some trials and explained what he had done to our English speaking staff, they thanked him for his time and I left the room with them. When he was alone with our Japanese staff, he proceeded to tell them how impressed he was with my interpretation. “Most interpreters can speak both languages and are fine with regular conversations but they get caught on the nitty-gritty machine stuff,” he told them. What impressed him about me is that I was able to talk like someone who knew about machines.

When you become an interpreter, it is easy to feel like you have arrived. You have been acknowledged as someone who is fluent in both languages and you are paid for that skill. However, that skill should never be static. We should never be content where we are. If we want to truly be able to express things the way someone would if they had spoken in their native language, we have to know what they know. I’ve heard experts say that if you are interpreting for a doctor, you should almost as much as a doctor knows. You can know all the words a doctor knows in two languages, but if you don’t have the background knowledge, you may not put them together correctly. Your interpretation will always lack the fluidity and coherence of the native language utterance.

The good thing is that we learn with each new job we take. So, all you have to do is be proactive about it. As you are interpreting, jot down or make a mental note of things you don’t understand or didn’t prepare for and look them up later. When you have the opportunity, ask questions. Don’t be afraid to speak up to clarify something that was not clearly stated. In my experience, most people respond favorably to their interpreter being thorough and trying to learn, rather than just glossing over things they don’t get.

Boosting L1 Skills for Translating and Interpreting

Boosting L1 Skills for Translating and Interpreting

This is based on「日本語力強化大作戦」『通訳翻訳ジャーナル』2013年1月号 (WINTER)


This article posits that, at least in the world of translation, there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” language. What is most important is that the language used in the translation is appropriate for the field, target audience, medium, etc.

Industrial Translation

Unlike literary translation, industrial translation texts need to be clear and logical, and adhere closely to the original. The translation must also make sense to the reader. In order to achieve that, you must understand the particular document’s field, content, and intended audience. If the document is meant for internal use, you can use more terminology, company-specific words, and abbreviations. However, if the intended audience is outside the company, it may be more important give a non-literal, meaning based, translation to make the content more comprehensible.

Often, translation in this field comes down to “literal and comprehensible” or “non-literal but easy to understand.” The best translators, according to the article, can do both. They are able to keep a literal, one to one correlation between the English and Japanese while creating an easy to read, natural sounding text. Good translators are often bold when it comes to the structure of the sentence, but are very cautious with the terminology.

Improving Target Language Skills for Industrial Translation

Phrasing and terminology are key in this field. The best way improve your L1 proficiency in this area is to read a lot of articles from that field, collect example sentences, build your TM, and then imitate those examples in your translation. We often think of doing this in our L2, borrowing sentences that we have heard before, but less so when writing in our L1. Yet it is very important for this type of translation. Additionally, terminology and phrasing can vary by company so it’s important to know what terms are used in the company you are translating for. Press releases and messages from the CEO will help you understand the tone and phrasing used by that company.


Interpreting requires equal proficiency in both languages. However, in interpreting, it is crucial that you understand what is being said. If you can take a complex discourse spoken in your L1 and change it into simple comprehensible L2 discourse, that is good. However, if you don’t understand the content, even though it is in your native language, you will not produce a good L2 interpretation. So it’s important to have good skills in phrasing and a wide knowledge base. A good interpreter will be able to take what is said by the speaker, scrape away the unnecessary words and 口癖, and produce a simple, natural, beautiful sentence in an instant.

In interpreting, TPO must always be considered, especially for Japanese. “Would you like to get dinner?” for example, would be interpreted very differently between two coworkers and between a subordinate and the president of the company. It would also be different if they were in a bar vs. in an office. Appropriate language for every TPO, both in the L1 and L2, must be mastered.

Improving Native Language Skills for Interpretation

Since natural phrasing is so important in interpretation, you should always be looking out for interesting phrases and writing them down as they come up. Also, it’s important to look up any words you come across in your native language that you don’t understand. This will help you broaden your knowledge base. In addition, it can be good to shadow the news in your native language to get used to formal discourse.

Interpreters must never forget to keep reading. Everything. The more you read, the more your knowledge base and vocabulary grow. Interpreters should read not only newspapers or magazines, but also novels, because they are a great source of spoken dialogue.

The woman who learned English in 6 months

The woman who learned English in 6 months

The following is based on an article in the Autumn 2012 edition of 通訳翻訳ジャーナル. The subject of the interview is a simultaneous interpreter named Yayoi Oguma, a woman who went from a TOEIC score of 280 to 805 in half a year. After three years, she was good enough to become a simultaneous interpreter. You can learn more about her on her website or check out one of her books. Below are some of the study tips which I have revised for Japanese learners. Bear in mind that she did each of these things every day.

  1. Take a cluster of 5-15 words concerning on a topic and make groups of 2-3 synonyms and 1 antonym. Review them every day before bed.
  2. Listen to 2-4 hours of Japanese a day. If you are going to listen to the news in Japanese, look up the Japanese news in English first so that you will understand the content. Then listen all in Japanese, looking up words as needed.
  3. Read translated articles, or articles in both languages about the same topic, out loud in both Japanese and English.
  4. When reading aloud, record yourself and review your pronunciation.
  5. Help grow your memory by reading and orally reproducing (not reciting but giving an overview of the content) one article a day.
  6. Get in the habit of translating whatever you are listening to in your head. Start practicing this for 5-10 minutes a day until you can do it for longer or do it automatically.
  7. Do 20 minutes of Shadowing (repeating the speaker’s words in their language a second behind them) a day. If that is too hard, start with 5 minutes a day. Record yourself and review your pronunciation and mistakes.
Not every word you don’t know is a word you don’t know

Not every word you don’t know is a word you don’t know

Have you ever had this experience? You see or hear a word in your native language and think that you don’t know how to say it in your target language. But then when you look it up, you find a word that you actually knew. This happens to me a lot. The main problem is that we are looking for one-to-one equivalents and ignoring the general meaning, which we understand because it is are native language.

Here is an example. I recently looked up the word “orientation” (in terms of “the orientation of the part in the fixture”). I thought that it must be a word I didn’t know. But when I looked it up, I found 方向. Of course I know that word, but I never equated “orientation” with “direction” which was the English definition that I assigned to 方向 when I first learned it. The problem is that we don’t think about the overall meanings of the words we hear or read. If I had thought about it, I would have realized that the “orientation” of the part is pretty much how it is put in the fixture: right side up, left side in first, vertically, surface down, etc. It’s more or less the same thing.


There is actually a book about this called 同時通訳が頭の中で一瞬でやっている英訳術リプロセシング. I have only just started reading it but it seems like her main thesis is that interpreting is really just taking what you hear and instantly changing it to reflect a meaning that you can then convey clearly in your target language. Unfortunately, after that thesis the book devolves into a series of common business phrases and their “appropriate” translations. But still, the main point is fairly solid. If you are trying to 直訳 everything, you are going to get some funny sentences. The same holds for words. We need to grasp the meaning of what is being said and translate that rather than paying attention to the words the person is using.

Using correct words vs. Using words a Japanese person would use

Using correct words vs. Using words a Japanese person would use

I just got off interpreting for 4 hours straight so this might not be the best time to write this out but it just kind of came to me. 

I have been hard on my self for what I have been calling “not using the right word”. For example, I interpret “production increased” into 「生産が増加しまた」. Then when I hear the Japanese speaker say 「増産」I think I have used the wrong word. Why would I make it into a sentence when there is already a word for it? However, (leaving aside the various slight differences of meaning) my translation was not wrong. It was just not what that particular Japanese person chose to use when speaking about it. That is why you can say: 部品を作りました、部品を生産しました、部品を製造しました and be generally right. Each of these has a slight difference in meaning but at base, they all mean “to make”. Most native speakers, if they are not grammar nazis, don’t notice the minor differences in meaning. They understand the intended meaning perfectly. While another translator (or a Japanese person who got 100% on the 日本語検定1級 like my boss, *grumble, grumble*) might notice the difference and tell you you used the wrong word, it really doesn’t make a difference to the average listener. They still think your Japanese is “perfect” because they understood every word and your pronunciation was clear and in the right tense. They are not looking for these small differences in meaning. 

Or at least, that is my impression from being told I am perfect by many people, and then having every word I use pulled apart by one other person (what exactly is the difference between プロセス流れand工程フロー anyway?). I have been trying to reconcile the two opinions and this is what I came up with. Let me know if you have any similar experiences.